Unalaska, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands aboard the M/V Tustumena

What do you mean you’ve never heard of Unalaska?  I’d like to sound all superior about it, but the truth of the matter is, I’d never heard of it until last summer either.   I met this random couple last summer who happened to mention they had just come back from a series of bird lectures in a place called Dutch Harbor, Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands.  “Where’s that I asked”  “It’s a group of islands flanked by the Bering Sea to the North and the Pacific Ocean to the South. Dutch Harbor/Unalaska is the most well known of them.  Hhhmmm that sounded vaguely familiar but not wanting to sound geographically ignorant I just nodded my head and pretended I knew exactly where they were.  As soon as they were out of sight, I consulted my Alaska Lonely Planet and sure enough there they were plain as day, down and to the left.

According to Google maps, Dutch Harbor, Unalaska is a little over 1,000 miles from Anchorage.  Ah ha now you’re thinking to yourself ” Why does Dutch Harbor” sound familiar.  This is where the reality show “The Deadliest Catch” is filmed. However, its a little bit like everyone associating Alaska in general with “She who shall not be named” Associating Dutch Harbor with only this show, would be selling one of the coolest places I’ve ever visited very, very short.

This is not exactly a regular stop on the Alaska tourist circuit, so of course that fact immediately propelled it to the top of my wish list.  Fast forward a year to July 2012 when I know for sure I’m coming back to Alaska.  I knew I was going to drive up the Alaska Highway again and visit some of the same places I’d been to last year, but I also wanted to go to some new and exotic destinations.

I wanted to see Barrow, the Northernmost community in the U.S. as well as Dutch Harbor. Unfortunately, Barrow was not meant to be this summer. I was going to be too late in the season for any of the tourist trips up there and the only other way to do it was to take a 3 1/2 hour flight, stay two hours and then take the same flight back that day!  Pass thanks.  Please note, Barrow is on next summers Alaska wish list!

Now you may have figured out by now that Dutch Harbor is not an easy destination to get to, especially in September when I went, transportation options become less and less frequent. I called the only decent hotel on the Island, The Grand Aleutian to check availability. They had a lot of sold out dates. Then I checked the ferry, “limited availability” (which was just silly that they said that since the first night aboard the Tustemena it was like a ghost ship). Lastly the flight down to Dutch Harbor–$500 one way, on a small propeller plane–yikes to price and to small propeller plane.

I’ve had a little practice in figuring this stuff out so sure enough before I knew it, hotel-booked, ferry booked, expensive flight-booked (thank you American Express points).

I had left Denver on August 6th, knowing everything on the way up was negotiable in terms of timing but I had to be in Anchorage no later than Sept 4th to leave the next morning on the flight to DH.  Fast forward almost a month, I made it to Anchorage slightly ahead of schedule on September 2nd and decided to relax a little at the VERY over-priced Marriott courtesy of my Marriott Rewards points.

The flight down to Dutch Harbor is notoriously heinous  As a matter of fact this part of the world is known as “the cradle of the storms”  (I have the DVD to prove it!)  Windy, rainy and at this time of the year everyone warned me that it  can be extremely foggy. It’s not uncommon for Penair to make the anywhere between 3-6 hour flight depending on headwinds, just to get there and say ” Oops never mind”, turn around and go all the way back to Anchorage–not kidding. It’s not like there are a whole lot of other places to land out there.  I was resigned to the fact that I was just going to have to white knuckle it all the way down while listening to calming music on my iphone. I also had two emergency Valium in the front pocket of my jeans just in case!

Needless to say there was more than enough anxiety surrounding this flight so the HURRICANE in Anchorage the night before I was leaving, really was quite unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. Oh and just to keep this as accurate as possible, they don’t call it a “hurricane” up here it was a “wind storm”. Well 100 mph sustained winds with gusts over 130 mph is a hurricane in my book! I wasn’t sure at first but as I was sitting on my bed watching  TV and I thought “Is the Marriott moving”?– it was.  Then just for extra fun, the power went off–all over Anchorage.  I wasn’t amused by any of this. If it was a regular night, it would have been just a bit of excitement, but this wasn’t a regular night.  The power came back on at 5:00 AM, at least in the part of Anchorage where I was, I slept for another hour and a half and then it was go time.  The winds had subsided but it was still fairly”stormish”  I was ready for a bumpy ride!

Blast off!

My first glimpse of Unalaska

My ride having safely delivered me and 20 or so other passengers. Much to my surprise it was a pretty pleasant flight. A little bumpy out of Anchorage and when we stopped to refuel in King Salmon, but other than that really great! Apparently I was very lucky, the man at the front desk of the hotel when I checked in said the day before the plane flew in sideways–I’m pretty sure I would not have enjoyed that!

The Grand Aleutian, swankiest digs on the island. This is the back of the hotel.

So everyone knows that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, but what very few people know is that they also bombed Dutch Harbor on June 3rd and 4th that same year. The first bombing missed most of the targets but sadly some new recruits were doing drills that morning at Fort Mears and 17 soldiers were killed. The Japanese also invaded and occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska, so there was actual hand to hand combat on American soil during WWII

Photo of Japanese bombing raid of Dutch Harbor (Wikapedia)

Here’s an interesting, short link that will provide some information about the Battle of Dutch Harbor

There was so much to see here I hardly knew where to begin: WWII history, natural beauty of the island, wildlife, hiking, Russian influence, exploring the town, the rest of the island itself!! Overwhelming! I’ll try to keep this to some sort of logical order, but no promises. Lets start with WWII.

One of the many pill boxes that dot the coast. A stark reminder of war set a midst the islands natural beauty.

Yes I had to climb inside one to see what it was like

This is the main entrance to The Grand Aleutian, amazing that one of these WWII pill boxes is right outside it’s front door and how awesome is it that they just sort of leave everything where it is.

One of the old WWII buildings still standing–there are quite a few of them on the island

Inside one of the WWII bunkers

The foundation of one of the guns with a 22 mile range high on top of Mt. Ballyhoo

WWII Memorial

Let’s move on to the island’s natural beauty which was pretty much everywhere you look. There were plenty of glimpses in the other photos but here it is full on!

A raft of sea otters

Bird on a wire

I hiked out here along an ancient Aleut foot trail that was quite possibly thousands of years old!

Every single dark spot you see is a salmon–too bad their are no bears on the island to enjoy them!

Great shot of the bay, that’s my hotel off to the right

Wouldn’t dream of it

Arctic Ground Squirrel

Eagle taking flight from the beach

Beautiful rocky cove

Magnificent juvenile bald eagle! They don’t turn into the iconic white headed bald eagle until they’re five, so this one is most likely 3-4 years old

Sitka Spruce Park where the Russians planted Sitka Spruce trees in 1805. It’s the oldest recorded afforestation project in North America.

Dutch Harbor is the only deep-water port in the Aleutians. More than 400 ships from over 17 countries stop here every year. Dutch Harbor is the country’s number one commercial fishing port for the past 20 years. There are tremendous fishing, cannery and shipping operations here. A number of companies are big players, but it seems like Unisea is the biggest. They own both hotels, as well as a huge residential complex for the workers, an enormous processing plant and all the liquor licenses on the island except for the one owned by the airport bar. Someone told me that the liquor store on Dutch Harbor sells more liquor/beer than any other liquor store in Alaska!  The scale of industry here is massive, set against an incredibly beautiful landscape somehow there seems to be room for everyone in this magical far-flung place.

A giant cargo ship loaded with seafood ready to go, most likely heading to Japan

Everywhere you look on Dutch Harbor and every fishing port/village in the Aleutian Islands, you see one of the most important tools, crab pots

Around Town

Dutch Harbor residential neighborhood

Harbor View Hotel and Bar, owned by Unisea Corp and part of the Unisea complex

One of the island’s most popular restaurants!

This is the oldest Russian church in Alaska, built in 1825. Look closely at the top, there are two bald eagles on each cross!

Downtown Dutch Harbor

The Journey East-Dutch Harbor to Kodiak Island-Two and Half Days aboard the M/V Tustumena

Me in front of the “Trusty Tusty” the oldest ship in the Alaska Marine Ferry fleet. She’s 48 years old and they’re usually retired at 50 (which I take offense at suddenly) but it seems they are low on funds so they’re just going to spruce her up a bit and keep her chuggin along.

My deluxe suite

Unloading supplies from the ship. The ferry is the main mode of transportation in the Aleutians

After a great nights sleep on the ship, this is what I awoke to!

The remote community of Cold Bay, our first stop of the morning

We had about an hour and a half stop over so I took a short walk off a long pier!

Intrepid traveler self portrait

Waiting to board the ship

Nothing like sailing past a volcano to make your morning!

My new friend Matt re-boarding the ship after a shore excursion

Matt and our awesome waitress/bartender./new friend Sheryl

When you can’t decide which Alaskan beer to order, order two!

Lets end this enormous post with a little Tusty humor

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11 Responses to Unalaska, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands aboard the M/V Tustumena

  1. Dawn September 27, 2012 at 4:58 pm #

    OMG Marc, what an amazing journey! You are officially a professor of history and travel and an awesome storyteller! Promise me you will showcase all of what you have on this site to the likes of National Geographics, high-end traveling mags, sites – even Scholastic – our children need to see and read about this amazing country of ours. Thank you for taking me on this journey with you!!

  2. Jamie September 27, 2012 at 5:55 pm #

    Really incredible stuff, Marc!! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Marc September 28, 2012 at 2:57 am #

    Thanks you guys so glad you enjoyed it. It’s an amazing, interesting part of the world.

  4. Barbara September 28, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Wow !!!!! Marc – just amazing in every aspect – -the writing, the pictures, the destinations – truly spectacular. I absolutely agree with Dawn, she said it perfectly !!

    • halcyonhighway September 30, 2012 at 3:40 am #

      Thanks Barb, so glad you enjoyed it !!

  5. Melanie October 2, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    I think we may have sat next to you on the plane –were you in the front row?
    I’m glad you had a good time and you got things right 🙂 Very few tourists do. Enjoyed your post a lot.

    • halcyonhighway October 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm #

      That’s so funny!! I was in the front row, but only after I broke my seat in the middle. I sat next to an older gentleman who kept showing people pics of his “fish angel” he was in the single seat and the guy on the other side of me where I was sitting was Coast Guard I believe. Thanks so much for reading, what an awesome place!!

  6. Janet October 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

    Mom told me that you miss my two cents. I thought you had said you were sending for me. Seeing the beautiful pictures does give me a feeling that you went with out the “girls”. Your ears must burn my gypsy friend!

    • halcyonhighway October 4, 2012 at 1:08 am #

      I did miss your comments! Besides you’re the only one in that group that know’s how to leave one 🙂 Hope all is well with you and the rest of the ladies

  7. Jos October 4, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Out of commission at 50. Um…

  8. Sue October 6, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Marc your pictures are fantastic. Thanks for sharing, Sue

    Marc Your pictures are fantastick. Thanks forsharing.ue

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